14 January 2012

On the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists

Recently I let out a stray tweet on the targeted killing of Iranian nuclear scientists, and I was challenged on Twitter as to why I took the approach that I did:

I'm not sure it's my job to develop or propound any sort of "doctrine", but here's what I think about the targeted killing of Iranian nuclear scientists.

First, the assumptions I operate under, in no particular order:
  1. I think that the Israeli government, or organisations affiliated closely to it, is responsible for those killings. This is not based on any sort of inside knowledge but a crude application of the notion of cui bono? - who stands to benefit? 
  2. I doubt the Iranian government is doing this to keep other nuclear scientists on their toes, or to deal with any dissent by these particular scientists in a more swift and brutal manner than the misgivings of J. Robert Oppenheimer were dealt with by the US Congress in the 1950s.
  3. Further to 1 above: I don't believe that Iranian dissident groups or your bog-standard criminals have the organisational skill to pull off events like these. Nor do the US have sufficient intelligence on the ground in Iran to play much of a role - even after having tens of thousands of their troops stationed to the west and northeast of Iran, in Iraq and Afghanistan respectively.
  4. I assume that those scientists identified as having been killed really are dead, and these reports aren't some sort of sympathy-seeking scam on the part of the Iranian government like the supposed death of baby Hana Gaddafi.
  5. The Iranian government is developing nuclear weapons and its protestations to the contrary are bullshit.
  6. The Iranian government has a firm and oft-stated policy of wiping the State of Israel off the face of the earth.
  7. The State of Israel has a right to exist, which means that it has the right to head off threats like the Iranian nuclear program, which is a real and major threat to the existence of Israel.
There are international measures for regulating the development of nuclear power and nuclear weapons, including through the IAEA. I'm sure that Israel is working within those structures to monitor Iran's nuclear program:
  • I'm equally sure that Israel's ability to do this is limited by the lack of good faith it has shown in dealing with Palestine, which I regard as a real but separate issue.
  • Israel may fairly be accused of subverting multilateral measures by these targeted killings, but so are the Iranians for lying about their program; and for developing nuclear weapons with aggressive intent rather than just to participate in "the nuclear club". Faults on both sides, no point hammering one and giving the other a free pass.
  • Israel does not have to wait until a nuclear weapon detonates on its territory, or passes into it, or even is completed, given the fact that these are expressly and explicitly to be used against Israel.
By targeting Iranian nuclear scientists, Israel is forestalling the development of a real and major threat to its existence.

Imagine that the Los Alamos Atomic Laboratory had been destroyed, or that individuals associated with it (e.g. Oppenheimer or Edward Teller) had been targeted for killing by the Axis powers or forces allied to them before the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. Such action would have been legitimate acts of war.

Would I be upset if Australian scientists got picked off by bombs? Yes, I would (and not just because Sydney traffic is bad enough as it is). For all the criticisms that may be made of Australian foreign policy, I don't believe that the Australian government is engaged in wiping another country off the face of the earth.

Iranian nuclear scientists are 'combatants'. Yes, they are. Given the regular official harangues against Israel - not dissimilar to those against Iraq before and during the conflict of the 1980s - Iranians who participate in their nuclear program know full well that they are threatening Israel and participating in a malevolent foreign policy. The development of a nuclear program by an explicitly and demonstrably aggressive Iran is the same sort of belligerent act as as the amassing of troops, beating ploughshares back into swords, and other acts indicating that a state is initiating war. Again, Israel is not obliged to place its exclusive trust in international agreements or to be bereft of options should those agreements fail to protect it from destruction.

Iran has been practicing terrorism against Israel, with its rhetorical threats backed up with their support for militant Palestinian elements. Targeting Iranian nuclear scientists has the same terrorist effect. Iran can still exist without its nuclear program, but Iran's threats against Israel are threats to the whole nation, its whole people. I think the targeted killings have been clever and resourceful against heavily protected nuclear scientists who are working to obliterate an entire people.

By contrast, the Iranian government has been boorish and inept in hoping that wiping Israel off the map is some sort of rallying cry for a failed regime. Its treatment of Iranian dissidents does not give the Iranian government, nor anyone else, any grounds to complain about the targeted killings of nuclear scientists.

If the Iranian government caught any agent in the act of preparing or placing those bombs, it would be hard to call for or expect proper due process in dealing with such a person.

Israel's behaviour is far from perfect but in seeking to forestall Iranian nuclear weapons my sympathies are with them, and I believe that sympathies for Iran on this matter (beyond a simple and true human empathy for the grieving families of the individuals killed) are misplaced.


  1. It should be pointed out (as you have most definitely not) that while Iran- apparently- WISHES TO develop nuclear weapons and "wipe a nation off the map", Israel ALREADY HAS developed nuclear weapons and "wiped a nation off the map".

    I'm of the opinion that these facts are very pertinent to the debate, and should be given a most prominent place. I bet the Iranians are too...

  2. Kersebleptes, Iran is in the process of developing those weapons, not allegedly, and not wishin' and hopin'. Israel has not detonated nuclear weapons against Palestine nor threatened to do so.

    You might care what the Iranian government might want but I don't, and I think that it is a more potent force against peace and co-operation than Israel is.

  3. Alphabajangodelta14/1/12 2:52 pm

    I think you're wrong on this strategically, for a number of reasons. First, starting up a new front of killing non-military personnel will only lead to poor outcomes. I'd be surprised if Iran (or its proxies) isn't now drawing up a list of Israeli nuclear scientists for targeting, whether in Israel or elsewhere, and most probably at universities or other non-military research institutes. It'll just make things messy with a lot more collateral damage to non-participant nations and their citizens and the risk of scope creep to microbiological and chemical scientists, rocket and automomous systems experts and so on.
    Second, Israel's internal and external security policy is as much a factor in generating threats to its own existence as Iran is. Israel has already developed nuclear weapons outside of international conventions and protocols, while it has a track record of assassinations carried out on foreign soil eg Bahrain.
    Third, given the possession of nukes by Israel combined with the way Iran is treated as a pariah and denied nuclear development merely gives Iran more motivation to acquire nuclear weapons capability. This capability is probably inevitable and from a long run perspective it would be better to deal with it as a fact rather than try and forestall it and simply antagonise Iran. A relaxed and comfortable nuclear armed Iran is far more desirable than a cornered, frightened and jumpy Iran. Terrifying as it was, the Cold War experience shows that two belligerents can mutually achieve a rough peace if the alternative is their assured destruction. Furthermore Iran may be presently antagonistic, but allowing for a different cultural, political and geographical perspective, there's little indication it is not rational.
    Fourth, underpinning your view is an a priori assumption that Israel should be possessed of the right to do what it pleases to assure its security yet Iran shouldn't. Israeli exceptionalism is a common vein in Western thinking on the Middle East but has the perverse effect of weakening Israel's incentives to achieve non military resolution to its external threats. If the US pulled its support from Israel we'd see the Palestine question resolved and wider peace in the Middle East in short order because Israel would need to use more sophisticated diplomatic resources than just its military potency and powerful friend. This is despite the so-called existential threats from nations like Iran, which are as much rhetorical for domestic political audiences as they are descriptive of a real strategic stance.
    That said, I wouldn't be surprised if the US and Israel do take extraordinary action against Iran, if only because it is the last Middle Eastern nation that demands a high degree of US military attention, at a time when the US wants to shift strategic focus and resources to the Asia Pacific.

    In my view this is one of your weaker posts. Your strategic political thinking on domestic issues is much sharper.

  4. Too many issues to take issue with here, the salient one is your point six - namely that Iran has consistently said that it wants to wipe Israel off the face of the map. This was an outright falsehood when it was first put out by the rabid US media and it is so still. It is based on nothing more than a deliberate mistranslation of a throw away line by Achmenijad. Whose authority is weak at best.
    Iran is a signatory to the NPT and has always allowed inspections it claims its program is for peaceful purposes and to this point there exists no substantive evidence, none whatever, to the contrary. Even if in the much longer term this changed it would simply mean that Iran would have less to fear from rogue nations attacking it and would amount to no more than that. The concept put about that Iran is pining to lay waste to Israel is illogical and mendacious.
    Iran has enough problems embracing modernity with a population stilled steeped in mediaeval mores and a fractured post colonial heritage.
    Sadly, Iran is a useful distraction from the despicable treatment of the indigenous population of Palestine and the ambitions of irredentist Israeli ambitions.

  5. I agree with poster above, love yr work on domestic politics but this post seems to miss its mark. I think the whole 'wipe Israel off the map' thing is somewhat inaccurate but even if true much much worse has said about what the us/Israel should/would want to do to Iran. At the very least it's all very grey with everyone being wrong/evil in their actions in some way....and can't condone killing of anyone without a fair assessment of crimes (if any)...,,

  6. Sorry Andrew, your spouting the same old MAD Colonial Power stuff that will ensure everybody goes up in smoke one day. The World now has 9 Nuke armed powers, I doubt one more will matter now. The attackers always have the pre-emptive rationalisation of their bad behavior, murder. Stalin, Hitler, George W all sang similar tunes. Already forgotten, Saddam Hussein Possesses Weapons of mass Destruction?

  7. Alpha,

    1. It isn't my fault that current definitions are inadequate. The Iranian nuclear scientists were and are amassing great force against Israel, in a way that a uniformed grunt like Gilad Shalit wasn't and isn't. There needs to be redefinition of who and what is fair game, and until then I lose no sleep over these actions.

    2. I accept that, but none of it is a reasonable provocation to Iran.

    3. I don't accept that Iran's nuclear ambitions are legitimate, or how they feel about the exercise of them. Same with North Korea. Whether they're jumpy or complacent, they ought not have a nuclear weapons program.

    3a. In the Cold War, both protagonists knew that they could not knock out the other before retaliation. It is entirely possible to abolish the State of Israel in a heartbeat.

    4. I disagree that Israel should do what it pleases. Its attempt to falsely procure a NZ passport in the 1990s was way out of line, as was the use of an Australian passport in a Mossad sting a few years ago. I think the Iranian regime is illegitimate; I won't go so far as the late Christopher Hitchens and scorn its entire theological underpinnings, but I do think the sudden concern for its territorial integrity is so much cant.

    5. I think the US is keen to leave Israel to run its own race, and tha it does so without much help from the US.

    You might be right about the weaker posts thing. I am setting out my assumptions and thought processes and seeing what works, what falls over. There won't be much of the foreign policy oracle thing going forward but fuck me, Greg Sheridan gets paid to churn out far worse shit than this.

    Persse, I agree that Iran can't cope with modernity and its leaders must be watching developments in the Arab Spring with considerable alarm. I would like to hink they'd hand over the keys and walk away when their time came, but lashing out against a demonised foe cannot be ruled out.

    Anon, I'd be appalled if the Australian government engaged in this sort of thing - or the Iranians for tha matter. I think the Israelis have been very clever on this in the way that they haven't lately (e.g. the Gaza Blockade, the Wall, or anything else Bibi has done really).

    730, the "nuclear club" and various historic figures with "similar tunes" is unworthy of you. I took great care to extricate this issue from the morass of complicating factors (I might not have succeeded, but who has?).

  8. This has to be the largest collection of pretentious political cant I have seen assembled in one place in awhile.

    And this from a blogger I had earmarked as an astute thinker. I think you just blew it big-time.

  9. I think your insistence of a right to preemptive strike raises some interesting questions. Can we condone , no support king herod's actions? I am talking about him killing his wife and family. It also raises the question as to can we become both the jury judge and the executioner . Clearly the Iraq experience tells us that we can be horribly wrong. Suggest you also see the film minority report. Btw I am not a fan of Tom cruise.

  10. johd, I notice you haven't advanced any reasons as to why you think that, whereas I've shown you mine. Interesting that the Iranian regime has so many fans all of a sudden.

    Anon, I'm not sure that Herod's wife and family offer the close parallel that you might hope. The theory of preemptive strike disturbs me but not nearly as much as the reality of nuclear destruction. Don't have time for movies, I'm not a Cruise fan either.

  11. Thanks for the pin up!

    My position is that extra-judicial killings are reprehensible in any situation. Israel does have a long history of using this tactic, and justifying it with Israeli exceptionalism.

    I'm not a fan of the current Iranian regime, but neither was I of the Shah.

    Each party in this is equally guilty of sabre-rattling, and currently the battlefield is firmly tilted towards the Israelis.

  12. I doubt the non-Jewish countries in the mid-east can separate, murdering scientists from, 5 decades plus of Palastinean misery, 1 decade Iraq, Afghan, Pakistan drone bombing.

    How long should the `world` tolerate, back, promote, proven failed `old-ideas` My previous comment was directed at the `world` needs `new` ideas, policy, direction. But world powers too, keep riding the dead donkey.

  13. Alphabajangodelta16/1/12 8:43 pm

    Good final point in your response to my previous though I am not convinced by the others. Though I'd say there's more coherent argument in one of your sentences on foreign policy than in most of Sheridan's entire articles. In his case I'd recommend full retirement than a a return to domestic competition.

  14. Alexander, I disagree that the worst thing that could happen is a technical breach, even if it does damage Israel's position when the international community goes against them. I'll always give a "pin-up" to those who lift the tone around here.

    730, I don't agree that anyone-but-Israel should have the last word on what Israel says or does. Like you, however, I seek transcendence from this dirty and foolish predicament. I'd even go so far as to say that it needs to come from inside Israel.

  15. Hi Andrew,
    I didn’t give any particulars because your piece is so riddled with inaccuracies, drivel, and plain hogwash, it is a major effort to document it all. Besides, I couldn’t see any upside to debating you on it, since, as I indicated, I considered you to be very astute. I presumed you would simply hold the email and respond privately. Wrong assumption, I guess.

    So, where do I start?

    1. Who Benefits? Supposedly Israel, but why not a host of others? The US, Britain, “The West”, Saudi Arabia, Iranian “Dissidents” (Note the quotation marks; calling terrorists ‘dissidents’ is a favourite tactic of moral relativist.) I only bring this up because you touch on it a couple of assumptions later. (Actually I tire of the exercise, so will deal with it here: “If the Iranian government caught any agent in the act of preparing or placing those bombs, it would be hard to call for or expect proper due process in dealing with such a person.” Really Andrew? People planting bombs that kill innocent people are Terrorist! What due process do you think our government would give someone caught in the act of placing a bomb? Moral relativist any?)
    2. I doubt it too. The only difference is that it would not even occur to me. Why did it occur to you? What? American Fascism - Iranian Fascism? Are you adding a charge that the Islamic regime is fascist?
    3. Perhaps you are not aware, but Iran has been the victim of many similar attacks, not only the four against its nuclear scientist; that have been documented and claimed by “Iranian Dissident Groups". They are quite capable of these attacks, particularly so with the agency of a foreign power.
    4. What on earth do you mean, “scam”? Is your opinion of the Iranians so low that you consider them to be some form of slimy gangsters? Have they no redeeming characteristics at all? Was Hanna Gadhafi a scam? Are you certain it is not you who has been scammed here? That story came out during a period of intense propaganda from all sides. It has not been verified yet, and is as likely a fabrication as true.
    5. No agency, reputable or disreputable, claims that Iran is “developing nuclear weapons”. Even the US does not make this claim. MOSSAD does not claim it. Who are we going to believe, you or the prying eyes of the IAEA? The MOSSAD CHIEF says it won't matter anyway.
    6. This ridiculous assumption is a quintessential misbelief. Not only was the statement not repeated, it was never uttered in the first place. I have to assume misbelief, because this charged has been so comprehensively refuted, so often, that one would otherwise have to assume bad faith.
    7. No such right exists in International Law. States can mutually recognised each other or not, but such recognition does not imply a “right to exist”. Which means Israel has no right to use Illegitimate means to enforce a non-existent right.

    1. 1. I don't agree that Iranian dissidents are an exercise in moral relativism, I think they're people ho aren't satisfied with the way their country is run and who think it can't be run well while it is structured the way it is. I also don't agree that people developing nuclear weapons are terrorists, if that's hat they're up to.

      2. Nobody's talking fascism here.

      3. Aww, have they? Aww.

      4. "Is your opinion of the Iranians so low that you consider them to be some form of slimy gangsters?" - not the people of Iran generally, but the sort of people who end up in its current government, yes. "Was Hanna Gadhafi a scam?" Yes.

      5 & 6. I am currently looking into these and will let you know what I find.

      7. I disagree, but I'm looking into that too.

  16. ISRAEL
    1. Israel’s lack of good faith flows directly from its posture regarding the Nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Laws are designed to protect us all. A country cannot simply place itself beyond the law, then demand others comply with the law. You realise this, hence your sidelining of it as an issue. But sidelining an issue that is central to your attitude toward that very issue makes your piece utterly ridiculous. Israel is your champion on this issue, but you want to sideline Israel’s behaviour. Somehow it is a “separate issue”. How convenient for you.
    2. Iran has been “lying” about its nuclear weapons? Apart from the fact that there is no evidence that Iran is “lying “about anything, nor is there any evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. Ignoring the fact that every intelligence agency has failed to produce a skerrick of evidence pointing to an existing nuclear weapons program. LKet’s be completely oblivious that the IAEA, reporting to the security Council, monitors the entire Iranian Nuclear program. It is enough that you declare it to be the case that Iran is producing Nuclkear weapons? You insist on compounding this absurd assertion with an equally bizarre comparison – comparing this “lying” with acts of war and the murder of academics legitimately going about their business.
    3. This statement is just nonsense. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) theory mandates that it is extremely unlikely for one nuclear armed State to strike another.

    Your WWII scenario pits a hot war situation against a cold war one.

    Israel is not certain to survive a hot war situation with a medium sized power. That is why I believe it highly unlikely that Israel has committed this murder, and that it is more likely the work of the USA.

    But that is simply my unsupported speculation, and I would hardly bother to write a blog post about it because that would expose my unconsidered opinion to ridicule. I simply don't know enough to go pontificating about it all.Especially not to insinuate that countries are uncivilized savages.

    Yes, I do suspect that there exists a deep antipathy towards the Islamic Republic within your soul. You provide ample senseless glimpses of a enmity towards Iran. There's something leaking from your radiator, and it's mean and ugly.

    Given the misdirection of your assumptions, the myopic premise, and the subsequent disjointed theories, I rather suspected your blog had been hacked. Alas, it hasn’t been. You really wrote all that, including the rest that I won’t bother with. I am getting so used to disappointment lately.

    1. 1. "Israel’s lack of good faith flows directly from its posture regarding the Nuclear non-proliferation treaty ... You realise this, hence your sidelining of it as an issue". I was referring to Israel's attitude towards Palestine, not the NPT.

      2. "Iran has been “lying” about its nuclear weapons?". Yeah, as I said, need to look into that.
      Not sure "academics" are "legitimately going about their business" but as I said, will look into that.

      3. MAD theory is so 20th century and relates to different actors in another time.

      "Israel is not certain to survive a hot war situation with a medium sized power". No it isn't, thus the action to forestall the gaining of hot-war capacity on the part of a perceived enemy. As I said, I'm looking into this, but you can see the thinking here.

      "Yes, I do suspect ... it's mean and ugly." I don't have a radiator, and I'm not a fan of the IRI to the point where I don't lose a lot of sleep when its dastardly plans are foiled.

      "I rather suspected your blog had been hacked. Alas, it hasn’t been. You really wrote all that, including the rest that I won’t bother with. I am getting so used to disappointment lately". If I could send a tissue over the internet, don't doubt that I would.

    2. Celeste Burgess January 24 '12. Excuse me if this sounds dumb BUT doesn't Iran have a right to defend itself? i mean Israel seems to me to be the big bully in this neighbourhood. Take a look at what they have and are still doing in Palestine, literally shoving Palestinians from their homes and they will contonue this carnage until they've got the lot. I'm from a democratic country and realise that the Iranian govt. are not ideal but when, as tourists, we were in Iran mid last year we never felt threatened at any time and the citizens were absolutely friendly, inquisitive and hospitable. By the way Israel also has nuclear weapons and chemical and biological weapons. Who's the ugly neighbour?

  17. derrida derider17/1/12 4:05 pm

    I have to agree, Andrew, that this is a very poor post because you're posting on something you don't know much about. It has led you to swallow propaganda lines wholesale - you'd think smart people like yourself would have learned something from the buildup to Iraq.

    Firstly, it is absolutely true that Iran has been put in the frame about "wanting to wipe Israel off the map". Most propaganda is a half-truth, but that one's a flat lie on a par with "Saddam was behind the terrorists". It's even put out by the same people from similar motives.

    Secondly, if Iran is building a bomb (though actual evidence on that is as weak as the "evidence" that Saddam was) then Iran is RATIONAL, not mad. Think about it - imagine you're in a region with three nuclear-armed powers, and a 500lb gorilla still has troops in two adjoining countries that it invaded in pursuit of "regime change" of exactly the sort it keeps threatening you with. Why wouldn't you be desperate to get a bomb?

    And if Iran is rational, then its having a bomb won't be much of a threat because like everyone else they'll be subject to deterrence. All it means is we can no longer pursue regime change with bombs and troops - which is, of course, exactly why the Yanks are so upset about it. That doesn't mean we should be.

    None of this implies sympathy for the mullahs - it is just commonsense. But then the whole purpose of propaganda is to prevent people seeing what is in front of their nose.

    1. dd, it's been a learning experience.

      I think the buildup to Iraq hat sui generis and while people are entitled to be sceptical about claims, I disagree that any and all future cries of "wolf" should be dismissed and go unanswered.

      I'm not sure that Iran is necessarily as rational as other powers in a similar position, or as stable. You're right about propaganda, though, and I'll be exploring this in a future blogpost.

  18. Obviously Obtuse19/1/12 1:05 pm

    I'm a great fan of andrew's analysis but I have to agree with johd on this one. It's hard to know where to start with the mistakes on this post. Has Andrew ever read Juan Cole's blog, or any posts by experts on the Commondreams or Counterpunch websites? A bit of a look at some articles or maps on these would perhaps illuminate some truth. It seems you can take the libertarian out of the liberal party but .......

  19. So by this logic politicians are also legitimate targets to be picked off in their homes during war time? In fact since we live in a democracy, all those who voted for a Government whose policy was war with another nation are legitimate targets. Slippery slope we're heading down here!

    The whole pre-emptive game is a dangerous one Andrew.

    1. Perhaps, but not the only dangerous one.